Monday November 18, 2019
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Dangers Of Mining Waste In Brazil

"We have the technology and we have the expertise, and the mining industry frankly has fought making those changes,"

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Brazil, Mining
An Indigenous man from the Pataxo Ha-ha-hae tribe looks at Paraopeba river, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Sao Joaquim de Bicas near Brumadinho, Brazil, Jan. 25, 2019. VOA

As rescuers in Brazil search for survivors of a dam collapse, questions abound about the health and environmental risks of the thick, brown, metal-laden mine waste that flowed over buildings. The accident comes after the United Nations and others warned that dam failures in the mining industry are becoming increasingly catastrophic because the structures are growing larger and more numerous around the globe.

A look at some of the hazards:

What Are Mine Tailings and How Are They Stored?

Mine tailings are large volumes of waste rock and other material left behind after companies dig up mineral-bearing ore and run it through mechanical and chemical processes to remove the most valuable components. The tailings are disposed of in ponds or other “impoundments,” often in a mud-like mixture of water and rock known as slurry.

A single large mine can produce hundreds of thousands of tons of tailings each day that are typically pumped into a massive holding area behind a dam, where the waste can remain for decades. Tailings piles can be dry enough on the surface to allow people to walk on them, but the inside is often wet, with a jelly-like consistency. A breach can release a runny, muddy material.

Mining
This is one of of the gold mines around Cobar. Flickr

In Friday’s disaster in Brumadinho, Brazil, the dam that failed was 282 feet (86 meters) high and held more than 400 million cubic feet (11.7 million cubic meters) of waste material, according to its owner, Brazilian-mining company Vale.

Are the Tailings Toxic?

The composition of tailings varies from mine to mine, with some containing radioactive material, heavy metals and even cyanide, which is used in silver and gold extraction.

Vale representatives have insisted that the slow-moving mud spreading down the Paraopeba River following Friday’s collapse is composed mostly of silica, or sand, and is non-toxic. But environmental groups contend the iron ore mine waste contains high levels of iron oxide that could cause irreversible damage.

A similar disaster in 2015 at a Vale-operated mine in the same region of Brazil killed 19 people and released 78 million cubic feet (60 million cubic meters) of mud that polluted hundreds of miles of rivers and streams. In that case, a U.N. report found that the waste “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals.”

Beyond the chemical dangers, a huge rush of muddy water into a river system can have long-lasting environmental effects, plastering the riverbed with silt that kills fish and vegetation.

Mining
Mine Waste. Flickr

The 2015 accident in Samarco, Brazil, left 250,000 people without drinking water after downstream supply systems were tainted or otherwise disrupted by mud.

Another danger from a tailings dam breach is that the sudden release can overtop a river’s normal channel and deposit contaminants on normally dry land, said Ellen Wohl, a geology professor at Colorado State University.

Those contaminants can later wash back into the river, re-polluting the water, she said. The contaminants can also become airborne if floodwaters deposit them on the riverbank, where they can dry out and blow away, said Marco Kaltofen, who is also a nuclear and chemical engineering researcher at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

How Often Do the Dams Fail and What Happens When They Do?

These types of dam failures are increasingly devastating because mines operate on a much larger scale than in the past, producing more tailings that require bigger dams.

There are an estimated 18,000 tailings dams worldwide, according to David Chambers with the Center for Science in Public Participation, which consults with government agencies and private groups on mining pollution issues.

A 2017 U.N report identified 40 significant dam failures over the prior decade — including in Canada, China, Brazil and Chile. A compilation of dam failures by Chambers and others tallied 435 people killed over the same time period.

Mining
Acid rock drainage occurs naturally within some environments as part of the rock weathering process but is exacerbated by large-scale earth disturbances characteristic of mining Flickr

“We can’t tell you where a failure is going to occur, but statistically we can tell you they are going to happen,” Chambers said.

What is Being Done to Prevent Tailings Dam Failures?

The dams can be threatened by earthquakes, undiscovered geologic faults and heavy rainstorms, and each of those threats has many unknowns, said Dermot Ross-Brown, a longtime mining consultant and a part-time professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

Mining companies use the best science and consultants they can find, he said. “It’s just that the problem is so big, and they have imperfect knowledge of what the geology is.”‘

Last year’s report from the U.N. recommended that governments and mining companies adopt a “zero-failure” goal for mining impoundments.

In 2016, in the wake of the Samarco spill, the International Council on Mining and Metals said instances of catastrophic mine waste impoundment failures were unacceptable. The organization issued new safety guidelines, and called on companies to use construction methods and operating practices that minimize the chances of accidents.

Also Read: Brazil’s New President Claims Indigenous Lands

But the industry’s critics say such calls for reforms have yielded few changes and more dam failures are inevitable without stepped-up construction practices and inspection regimes. They say more also needs to be done to make sure that people are not living or working just downstream of the dams, where they are at the greatest risk in a failure.

“We have the technology and we have the expertise, and the mining industry frankly has fought making those changes,” said Payal Sampat with the U.S.-based environmental group Earthworks. (VOA)

Next Story

Meet The One Who Gave Birth To Tsunamika: Upcycling Waste to Hope

When the fisherwomen agreed, Prajapati brought loads of garment waste from Upasana and taught them how to make tiny dolls - these were named 'Tsunamika'

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Tsunamika
The Tsunamika project has been given the 'Award of Excellence' by the Government of India and a special recognition by UNESCO. Pixabay

BY VENKATACHARI JAGANNATHAN

She gave birth to Tsunamika, the doll that brought hope to hundreds of women who had lost everything in their life to the devastating 2004 tsunami that hit the southern India coast. Fifteen years down the line, she, again through Tsunamika is giving hope to the same ocean that once took away much from many.

Uma Prajapati, 50, an entrepreneur-cum-social activist, who built the fashion garment company Upasana Design Studio in Auroville, now plans to carry out her business to sustain the future of the planet.

For a woman, who had to once play hard to convince her parents from Gaya, Bihar that her arena was larger than within the four-walls they gave her, Prajapati’s mission is now to protect the environment and promote sustainable living for those dependent on it. .

Her fashion garments only uses khadi, organic cotton and handloom. She has used her design skills to come up with a compact foldable shopping bag as an environment-friendly solution for plastic carry bags. She has also started projects like Paruthi working with farmers in Tamil Nadu to grow organic cotton and Varanasi weavers.

For Prajapati, born and brought up in small town in Bihar, the Auroville connection happened after she attended an exhibition in Pragati Maidan in Delhi. “Auroville had a stall at the exhibition. The place interested me and I wrote to them expressing my wish to make a visit. I got a positive response,” Prajapati told IANS from Auroville, the universal township near Puducherry set up to promote human unity.

Then just into the first few months in Delhi after she left behind a life most secluded and sheltered, the economics student from a Gaya college, who aspired to be a scholar, or writer, or painter, it was a huge leap.

Tsunamika
She gave birth to Tsunamika, the doll that brought hope to hundreds of women who had lost everything in their life to the devastating 2004 tsunami that hit the southern India coast. IANS

Taking two weeks off from office, she came down to Auroville. “I realised that Auroville was the place for me where I could be a designer and also a spiritual seeker. It was a radical place for me and I settled down here in 1997,” she said.

Be that as it may, Prajapati upon arrival in Auroville joined a small garment unit. Very soon with a small sum of Rs 2,000 she turned entrepreneur floating Upasana, which broke even in six months time.

Recalling her first social project — Tsunamika — Prajapati said life was chugging along well with her garment business that started in 1997. Soon, she was shipping out about 40 per cent of the production.

Then a tsunami wave hit the southern coast in 2004 turning lives upside down. Upasana turned from pure garment business outfit to a socially-conscious venture.

“When I visited the tsunami affected fishing villages in Puducherry, I saw the women staring emptily and silent. It suddenly struck me to ask them whether they would like to make dolls. My idea was to make them to focus on something else and ignite the fire of hope in their minds.”

When the fisherwomen agreed, Prajapati brought loads of garment waste from Upasana and taught them how to make tiny dolls – these were named ‘Tsunamika’.

While the women made the dolls, the mood was heavy and silence prevailed until one woman laughed. “Suddenly I heard laughter from one woman. She pulled the leg of her neighbour saying the doll she had made looked stupid, just like the maker. It was a small comment but the mood of the group changed immediately and there was laughter after several days,” Prajapati said.

She took the doll idea to several fishing villages in Puducherry and soon had thousands of dolls on hand giving rise to the concept of a ‘gift economy’.

The Tsunamika dolls are not sold but given as gifts. The recipient of the gift or others can make donation as per their capacity.

Donations received were used for making more dolls and payments made to the fisherwomen. “After a long time, there came a day when the thought of a donation didn’t occur, while gifting the dolls. The purity of the concept changes you slowly,” she said.

Over a period of 15 years, about six million Tsunamika dolls were made and sent to over 80 countries. The Tsunamika project has been given the ‘Award of Excellence’ by the Government of India and a special recognition by UNESCO.

Tsunamika’s story book was published in seven languages, English, German, Russian, Danish, French, Tamil and Spanish. Tsunamika is the only project post tsunami that is still active.

Prajapati said she was never tempted to use the brand equity of Tsunamika for her garments or tag the Upasana brand to Tsunamika.

“The concept is to upcycle waste to hope. From a symbol of hope, Tsunamika has now transformed to be the voice of the ocean, voice of the coastline spreading the message that oceans are not dumping places for untreated sewage water and other garbage,” she remarked.

The coastal community lists out three things that kills the ocean — black water (untreated sewage), over fishing by trawlers and dumping of garbage.

Prajapati will be targeting school children to imbibe and also spread the ‘save the ocean’ message.

Tsunamika
For The Tsunamika Project, Her fashion garments only uses khadi, organic cotton and handloom. She has used her design skills to come up with a compact foldable shopping bag as an environment-friendly solution for plastic carry bags. Pixabay

This thought gave birth to ‘Paruthi’ which was about growing organic cotton so that farmers can realise higher prices and the garment is made with eco-friendly cloth.

Working with about 600 farmers, Prajapati saw that organic cotton was grown in about rainfed 900 acres, in Tamil Nadu.

“We are looking at exports to Japan and Europe under the Upasana brand,” she said. The company has brand outlets in Puducherry, Bengaluru and Pune while supplying to 20 other retail outlets.

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That is a long long way from where she started when her father had told her painting and art were not stable income earners, she recalled.

“We had music, dance, painting tuitions at home. I learnt painting and music. Life was not difficult as father was into automobile business,” she said. But her parents were not sure of her professional choices at first. (IANS)